The Importance of Putting Your Needs Before the Needs of Others

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A few weeks back, I was having one of those extremely busy days filled with deadlines and back-to-back meetings, with no time for more than a quick bite at lunch and a few bathroom breaks. My saving grace was that, at the end of the day, I had an osteopath appointment on the other side of the city, which meant that I had a thirty-minute window on the streetcar. During this time for myself, I could finally relax and catch up on the personal WhatsApp messages that had my phone blowing up during the day.

After scrambling out of the office and making my way onto the streetcar, I took a deep breath and pulled out my phone. Just before I could chill out and get lost in my own world, I heard someone say, “Hi Ritu!” It was an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in years—someone I didn’t know very well at all—who was shuffling her way towards me in the crammed streetcar. I felt my stomach drop when I realized this would lead to the last thing I wanted in that moment: a conversation made up of polite social banter about work, life, and (her) kids. My body stiffened as I felt tears start to well up behind my eyes. I took a deep breath and pushed myself to hold it together in order to have a polite conversation with her.

She launched into updates on her life and chitchat that all felt so empty to me. All I wanted to do was interrupt her and tell her I didn’t have the energy to talk, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I smiled politely and nodded along until it was time for me to get off.

Weeks later, when I shared this story with my friend Debby, she asked me, “Why didn’t you just talk with her for a few minutes, thank her for the chat, and then tell her that you had to get back to responding to some messages before you got off the streetcar?”

I didn’t even know how to answer that. It never occurred to me to speak up in order to keep some precious time for myself, no matter how much I needed and craved it. Between work, social demands, and personal care, we’re often pulled in different directions, resulting in exhaustion. We know it’s important to carve out time for ourselves, but how do we put our own self-care needs before others’ demands for our time? And more importantly, how do we communicate this to them without coming across as rude or selfish?

I thought a lot about what Debby had asked me and I had a few realizations about why I didn’t tell this person that I didn’t want to make social banter any longer: it wasn’t just that I was afraid of coming across as rude, it was largely due to fear — fear of not being liked, of offending her, and of being judged. I also felt this anxiety acutely because of the current stigma in our society about being permanently attached to our electronic devices and not being present enough in the world to have one-on-one conversations.

But here’s the thing: living life authentically and engaging in any kind of meaningful interaction requires us to be fully present, which we can’t do well when we’re tired. Sometimes we must do what is best for us — put our needs before someone else’s — even if it means being on the phone to connect with loved ones as social release (which, by the way, was exactly what I needed to decompress from my long day).

Since speaking with Debby, I have been doing a better job of advocating for my needs. What I’ve learned through this process is that it’s not only important to understand what you need, but also how to express it. If you need a little help with finding the right words, I find scripting responses and practicing them in my head helps with knowing what to say at the right time. You don’t have to be abrupt; be polite, explain your situation, but keep it short — you don’t owe the other person an explanation every time! And remember, for the time that you are there and engaging with this person, ensure that you’re present for the conversation so it’s meaningful and authentic, and you’ll both leave the exchange feeling good.

Need some inspiration to help you to advocate for your own needs? Here are three reasons why self-care is so important.

1. If you burn out, you won’t have the energy to enjoy activities you normally would.

When you’re exhausted, levels of serotonin and other “happy hormones” decrease, meaning all the simple things you normally enjoy, like having drinks with friends or watching a movie with your partner, are not only less enjoyable but can result in frustration, irritation, or even aggression. Happy hormones take time to replenish and feeling tired is your body’s way of telling you that you need a break!

2. Your health depends on it!

Our bodies and minds are connected. When you don’t carve out time for personal care, your body can go into stress or survival mode, meaning your cortisol level will rise, creating even more stress (a vicious cycle, really). To add to that, stress on your nervous system and lack of sleep can affect your immune system, meaning you’re more vulnerable to that nasty seasonal cold.

3. Your negative energy can transfer onto others.

Have you ever walked into a room where the air is tight, the mood somber, and you feel uncomfortable? Recent research suggests that, like plants, people feed off other people’s energy like sponges; it’s important to recognize the subtle power we have in affecting someone else’s mood.

When you make time for your wants and needs, you are showing yourself the love and care your body and mind both require for you to be your most authentic selves. Putting your own needs first also allows you to be available for the people you love, do better at your work, and have more genuine, meaningful social interactions and connections — all of which, as I’ve said before, is key to a happy life.

So the next time someone demands time you simply cannot afford to give, what will you say to them? How will you advocate for your self-care needs? I’d love to hear from you, so do leave your comments below!


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